Anger & Attachment

Parvati by Bireswar Sen, 1970.

Where does anger come from? As a person occasionally prone to angry outbursts, I’ve thought a lot about this question. The lesson of Zen practice is that enlightenment is not something that is suddenly achieved and retained in perpetuity. Instead, enlightenment, much like happiness, is a state of mind we only experience brief glimpses of. It is a process, not a result. This is why we must focus on the process, and not the results, if we want to include enlightenment in our experience. The harder we search for it, the more difficult it is to attain. We must simply let it come and go at will while nurturing the conditions that make it most likely to arise— mindfulness, concentration, gratitude. This is the most intriguing paradox of Buddhism but also the most liberating.

When I don’t meditate for a few days, I notice the conditions for enlightened consciousness begin to fade. I become less aware of how I am behaving and thinking and am more prone to losing myself in harmful thoughts or actions. This lapse makes me more prone to anger, attachment, impulsiveness and mindlessness. I view meditation as a daily cleaning of the dust from the mirror of the self. If we let the dust build up, we lose sight of the self and begin to act un-harmoniously. It’s important to recognize that this is natural; the same way dust buildup is natural, mental fogginess naturally results from a lack of self-reflection. We are not failures or idiots for letting it build up, and should never beat ourselves up over this, but if we want to live mindfully we should take the steps needed to clear it up each day.

This is partly where anger comes from. The impulse that feeds anger is the desire for things to be different from what they are. How silly that we trouble ourselves trying to alter reality and bend it to our wishes. This is sure path to disappointment and destruction. In this respect, anger is a reflection of how attached we are to the illusions of the world and the self. The higher the stakes, the more severe our emotional response. This is why anger often comes about at times when it would seem most important for it not to. We sabotage ourselves with anger when we are most in need of a compassionate attitude towards the self.

Many notable figures with stressful careers in fields like business, medicine or entertainment have publically lauded meditation’s influence. It enables them to stay calm and centered when the whole world seems to be chaotically rushing around them. What great strength we find when we differentiate ourselves from the herd. When everyone around you is too focused on results to calmly participate in the process, the one who ‘wins’ is the one who isn’t focused on winning, but on each little momentary action. This is the secret to a meaningful and ‘successful’ life. Meditation’s benefits and results come from its greatest lesson: life is not about benefits or results.

The challenge of mindfulness is to remain calm and self-aware even when everything in the world is begging us to lose our cool. This is why consistency is so important in meditation practice. If we don’t consistently flex the muscles that train the mind to be still, we might not remember to be mindful when we need it most. It is our duty to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world at large to retain mindfulness when life challenges us with chaos, anger and indulgence.

This all might seem very insular to you, but is it really? How often have rash emotional responses harmed those around you? How often has fear kept you from doing things you intuitively know you should do? How many times have you felt anxiety or depression because you directed your anger inward? These self-defeating impulses aren’t just inconveniences; they shape the way we live our lives. If we don’t uncover the mindfulness needed to balance them out, they end up holding us prisoner.

The goal of meditation should not be to escape anger or escape suffering. This is a false attitude. There is no real goal to meditation; this is exactly what gives it its power. If we attach it to an ends, we attach ourselves to the act itself and it subsequently becomes impotent. But if we meditate for its own sake, we learn to let go. In learning to let go, we make peace with the world for what it is. In making peace with the world, our anger disappears because we stop trying to control every little moment to fit our fantasies and expectations. Instead of trying to become something else, we make accept what we are.

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